Marion discusses nuances of coronavirus response

Mar 20, 2020

MARION — At a remote, emergency meeting on March 19, the Board of Selectmen signed a first responder policy for dealing with coronavirus and discussed how to gradually bring back employees and meetings after next week, but opted not to sign a declaration of emergency for the town. 

As of March 19, officials did not know of any coronavirus cases in town. Still, the Town House will be closed to the public for at least another week, following President Donald Trump’s directive. 

Selectmen opted not to declare a state of emergency because they felt the authorities granted in the state declaration superseded those from a local measure. 

“There’s a lot of panic surrounding this,” Selectman Randy Parker said, adding that he wouldn’t want to make it worse with the declaration. 

Selectman John Waterman’s primary concern was that the town could miss out on some funding if it did not make the declaration. 

Town Administrator Jay McGrail said that he had talked with Town Counsel John Whitten who thought that the declaration would not impact funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, McGrail said he was happy to check and have Selectmen consider it when they meet on Tuesday. 

The new first responder personnel policy deals with how Marion would take care of town employees if they were to contract the virus on the job, and includes a paid quarantine leave. 

Waterman asked how the paid leave would work for on-call firemen. McGrail said it would be based an average of their pay over the last six months. 

Waterman suggested that the board review the policy every 90 days to make sure it still made sense. If the virus lingers for years in a less-critical phase, it eventually may not. Other selectmen and McGrail agreed. 

He also wanted to know how the town could be sure that first responders got the virus on the job. McGrail acknowledged it would be hard to determine, but said he hopes the town’s quarantine insurance would handle most cases. 

A food bank that Marion set up last week had almost 70 cars stop by on March 19 to pick up perishable and non-perishable groceries, McGrail said in an update. The town ran out of cheese and milk, but will pick up four tons of groceries tomorrow. From March 17 to March 19 the food bank shifted from mostly senior citizens to younger families. It will continue on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Benjamin Cushing Community Center, with the town making deliveries to those who call expressing a need on other days. 

The majority of town employees are working from home, with certain essential people at the Town House, which McGrail said has “worked fairly well for us this week.”

In the future he recommended bringing staff in on a rotating basis to minimize contact. Waterman suggested that the town bring in as many as a quarter of the employees, and his fellow Selectman Norm Hills suggested re-evaluating every week. 

Selectmen all agreed that if current circumstances continue, demand for a lot of administrative services will slow down, but want to reconsider by March 31 whether they should reschedule Town Meeting. 

For most committees, meetings are canceled through Sunday, March 29. Selectmen decided to have McGrail check in with the chairs of the Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation Commission and Assessors to see if they had urgent business to discuss after the 31. The Board of Health is meeting regularly, and the Emergency Management Committee meets daily at 10 a.m. 

The board also wrestled with how to allow public participation in hearings on a remote basis.

“We could have a public meeting next week, but hearings are more complicated,” McGrail said. 

Selectmen decided that the easiest option would be to have callers state their name and address, and call back to verify that information if needed.